Algeria’s Desert Deportations Continue As EU Ups Pressure to Control Migration

Since May 2017, Algeria has deported more than 13,000 people by expelling them into the desert at its southern borders with Niger and Mali, according to a June 25 Associated Press report.

Algeria’s Desert Deportations of migrants

Since May 2017, Algeria has deported more than 13,000 people by expelling them into the desert at its southern borders with Niger and Mali, according to a June 25 Associated Press report.

By July 13, AP declared that Algeria, in response to widespread international condemnation, had all but ceased this deadly and illegal practice. However, two days later, Reuters reported that Algerian forces expelled another 391 migrants into the Sahara near the Nigerien border.

AP’s original report revealed that Algeria has clandestinely expelled hundreds of immigrants in this way, often at gunpoint, nearly every week for over a year. Algerian gendarmes left the deportees with no food, very little water, and only a vague sense of direction toward the closest town. Those dropped near the Nigerien border were forced to walk more than ten miles to the town of Assamaka, a journey that sometimes took days. Those dropped near the Malian border reported that the trek to the border town of In Khalil took at least six hours.

The landscape through which Algeria forced these people to walk is arid, barren, and extremely hot (upwards of 122 degrees Fahrenheit). Many of the forced deportees, having become disoriented and exhausted under the harsh conditions, gave up and collapsed; they were not seen again. Algeria does not provide data on these expulsions, so it is unknown how many people have actually died during these marches. However, the U.N.’s International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates that 11,276 of the at least 13,000 expelled men, women, and children have survived the walk through the desert since last May. One pregnant Liberian woman suffered a miscarriage while walking through the desert to Niger and had to bury her baby in the sand.

The vast majority of those expelled into the desert are from countries in West and Central Africa. Algeria, which has had a deportation agreement with Niger since 2015, gives slightly better treatment to Nigeriens, who are driven in pre-announced convoys right to the border.

The IOM set up a base in Assamaka, from which it launches rescue operations, processes and assists deportees, and monitors Algeria’s actions. According to Human Rights Watch, the IOM had rescued over 7,000 non-Nigeriens in the Sahara and observed the passage of 9,037 Nigeriens on convoys between January 1 and May 18. An NGO in Mali says that it has “assisted more than 600 sub-Saharan migrants…since the beginning of the year.” An Algerian Interior Ministry official, Hassan Qasimi, referring to the thousands of migrants rejected by Algeria this year, told Reuters, “We have no choice but to prevent them.”

Those who reach Assamaka, Niger, or In Khalil, Mali are trucked to the cities of Agadez or Gao, respectively. For many, this is their second time in Agadez, a city that has become a major transit point for sub-Saharan Africans seeking to reach North Africa or Europe. The IOM estimates that nearly 30,000 people have died en route through the Sahara since 2014. As Al Jazeera has reported, the expelled groups sometimes “cross paths with some who are making the trip north towards Algeria and Europe.” From these cities, most expelled people have been flown back to their home countries, courtesy of the IOM.

In March 2018, Algerian Interior Minister Noureddine Bedoui insisted that the 25,000 “repatriations” it has carried out since 2015 were “at the request of [immigrants’] countr[ies] of origin.” Human Rights Watch reported that migrants “were not offered an assisted voluntary repatriation, either through the International Organization for Migration (IOM) or through contacts with their consulates or embassies.”

A Human Rights Watch report detailed Algeria’s patently unjust process of mass arrest, trial, and deportation. Algerian security forces rounded up foreign nationals from neighborhoods and construction sites. Some had lived in Algeria for nearly two decades. These arrests appear to have been made largely on the basis of race; people with dark skin were targeted. Officers accused them of illegal residence in Algeria, regardless of their actual legal status. When people proffered valid documentation, it was ignored. Courts then tried them en masse, in Arabic (a language most did not speak) and without representation, and summarily convicted them.

Algerian forces then bussed them to detention centers, and then further to various points along the southern border. Officers beat them, denied them food and water, and confiscated their phones, money, and other valuables. Authorities separated some families in the process. After this long ordeal, Algerian forces then drove these men, women, and children near to the border with Niger or Mali and dumped them in the desert. They then began the perilous walk.

Although the worldwide public only learned the details of Algeria’s expulsions from the June 25 AP report, the practice was, as Al Jazeera described it, an “open secret among aid workers, as well as governments in Africa and Europe.” The African Union and the European Union had chastised Algeria in private, but, wanting Algeria’s cooperation in managing migration, they were reluctant to bring it into the global spotlight. Algeria, as an E.U. spokesperson said, has the right to deport migrants if it follows international law.  

Although Algeria has been reticent to even acknowledge this practice, some of the deportees have been able to provide video evidence from concealed cell phones. After the AP report, Algeria scrambled to defend its legal standing, inviting media to observe deportations (specifically, their more humane treatment of Nigerien citizens). According to Human Rights Watch, international conventions in 1951 and 1987 outlawed the forcible removal of “any refugee or asylum seeker to a place where they would … probably be tortured or subjected to inhuman and degrading treatment.” Algeria is party to these conventions, but has no legal asylum process. With these expulsions into harsh desert territory – made still more dangerous by the presence of armed, al-Qaida-affiliated militias – Algeria has clearly violated international law.  

Algeria appeared to halt its desert expulsions (although this hiatus only lasted a few days) and fired both its national security chief and the head of the gendarmerie (although these dismissals were not explicitly linked to the expulsions). AP reported that the rampant arrests of immigrants continue, but now, instead of being dropped off in the desert, most people are packed into prisons.

Algeria’s justification for expelling sub-Saharan immigrants echoes the rhetoric of right-wing European and American politicians. Human Rights Watch reported that, in July 2017, then-cabinet chief Ahmed Ouyahia called migrants a “source of criminality and drugs” who caused “chaos.” By April 2018, Ouyahia had become prime minister. At that time, Middle East Monitor reported his assertion that Algeria would continue deportations as a matter of “national security” and “public order.” In the same month, Hassan Qasimi claimed that immigrants “threaten[ed] the social structure of the country.”

In 2017, Al-Araby reported that a starkly racist, anti-immigrant attitude had spread through Algerian society. The public and the local media adopted the kind of violent, de-humanizing language that has often preceded ethnic cleansing, genocide, or race-based expulsions: “They must be exterminated like rats;” “they are violating and spreading AIDS in our cities;” they are “invading the streets” and bringing “diseases.” Similar language has been used against immigrants in the U.S. and Europe.

As is the case in many countries, immigrants serve as an easy scapegoat for local problems. Algeria’s economy is faltering as it tries to transition out of oil dependency since global oil prices dropped. Inflation is rising, unemployment is high (12 percent) and there is a labor shortage. West Africans began immigrating to Algeria on a large scale only in the 2000s. The government has deflected popular discontent away from those who are actually accountable by targeting these immigrants. In cities that have experienced increased immigration, Algerians have rioted and violently clashed with sub-Saharan immigrants.

Pressure from the European Union is one of the driving reasons behind Algeria’s immigrant crackdown and desert expulsions. As immigration to the E.U. via North Africa has surged in the past decade, the E.U. has increasingly sought to outsource its borders across the Mediterranean Sea. It has established governmental partnerships in North Africa to do the work of controlling migration abroad. In 2016, the Migration Partnership Framework laid out plans to offer “a mix of positive and negative incentives” to 16 “third countries,” including Algeria, to reward cooperation and punish recalcitrance.

Europe is keen on keeping migrants from reaching its shores. In 2016, the E.U. offered $638 million to Niger to hamper its busy migration route. Italy allotted 238 million euros in 2017 to help the Libyan Coast Guard deter sea crossings. In May 2018, in response to the arrival of 2,000 Algerian migrants in Spain, Spain and Algeria signed an agreement to cooperatively combat “illegal immigration and prevent Islamist terrorism.”  Due to these efforts, many Europe-seeking migrants and refugees have gotten stuck in Algeria.

Some immigrants intend to settle in Algeria and some are in transit to Europe. Some are refugees from conflict and some are seeking economic opportunity. In 2004, Algeria rejected an E.U. request to build an immigrant detention camp there. Al-Araby explained it as a simple “denial of the reality of sub-Saharan migration beyond it being just transitory.”

Although it has largely brushed off calls to protect migrants, Algeria, like neighboring Morocco, has announced plans to allow “irregular” sub-Saharan migrants to get residency and work permits. Regularization would provide work to immigrants and bolster the workforce for Algeria’s hungry construction and agriculture industries. In addition, it would combat the cultivation of domestic terrorist groups that prey on alienated and unemployed immigrants. It remains to be seen how many people will be regularized.

At the same time, Algeria has made life increasingly difficult for its immigrants. In April 2018, Interior Ministry official Hassan Qasimi said that Algeria had “allocated $20 million to face the waves of illegal immigrants who are flowing towards the southern borders on a daily basis.”

Algeria and its neighbors, particularly Morocco, appear to be fully aware of how much the E.U. relies on their migration management. In February 2017, immediately following the E.U.’s suspension of agricultural trade with Morocco, 1,100 immigrants crossed into Spain in just three days – more than in the whole of 2016. Al Jazeera quoted journalist Ignacio Cembrero as saying that the influx was “a reminder …, [a] way for Morocco to show that it controls immigration and holds the migrant pipeline in its hands.” Although Algeria and Morocco have the ability to manipulate thousands of human lives as political leverage against the E.U., they are still intent on keeping their northern neighbors appeased.

While the E.U.’s North African partnerships have slowed the movement of migrants across the Mediterranean, they have also resulted in cruel and deadly circumstances. In Libya, the obstruction of sea crossings eventually led to grievous abuse, torture, and the selling of migrants at auction into slavery. Pressure to stem migration to Europe in Algeria has led to unjust trials, harsh detentions, and the often-deadly expulsion of people into the Sahara. Legalizing and regularizing immigrants in Algeria would likely benefit the country’s economy and would undeniably be a more humane strategy than mass desert expulsions. However, no matter Algeria’s approach to immigration going forward, the root causes of political and economic turmoil abroad and Europe’s incautious effort to outsource border control to North Africa will remain.